- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

DUSSELDORF, Germany — “Soft or hard-boiled?” asks the duke. He has just brewed tea and is offering eggs, cheese and meat to six guests at breakfast.

We are sitting at a long table in the paneled library-cum-dining room of Ossenberg Castle, the 285-year-old home of Wilhelm Albert, the fifth Duke von Urath, in western Germany. A crystal chandelier hangs from a charming 18th-century ceiling fresco of naked puffy cherubs wafting through puffy clouds. The china is Villeroy & Boch; the napkins, paper.

Our host sits down to join us, and the breakfast conversation turns to the weather, the news and sports, which in Germany usually means soccer. What else would you talk about with the fifth Duke von Urath?

Ossenberg Castle is the first stop on a stay featuring stately homes in the tranquil North Rhine-Westphalia area northwest of Dusseldorf. By the time we finish, we also will have dined with a count, attended a concert with two barons and shared a bratwurst picnic with assorted chino-clad titles. Who says you have to be to the manor born?

The nobility and their ancestral digs are part of a new association of private country estates called Culture & Castles. Actually, the estates are rather grand bed-and-breakfast accommodations, giving guests a chance to mingle with landed aristocracy, sample upper-class life at below-stairs rates and explore lesser-known parts of the countryside.

After breakfast, the Duchess von Urath — “Call me Karen” — shows us around the 200-acre estate and the rose garden enclosed by brick walls and stone towers, a reminder that Ossenberg dates from the 12th century. In the lovely classical main house, built in 1721, the duke and duchess and their three children live in one wing, with four attractive guest rooms and baths in the other. Between the wings are historic salons with paneled walls, glorious ceiling frescoes, antique furnishings and family portraits.

As the duchess chats about carpooling the three children, you might think these are regular folk until you remember that between them, the duke and duchess are related to the Grimaldis (of Monaco), Josephine Bonaparte, the Thurn und Taxis dynasty and other noble houses of Europe.

Later in the day, we drive a few miles to Haus Hertefeld, a 370-acre estate of rolling lawns and towering trees on the banks of the River Niers, where Count zu Eulenburg, formally known as Friedrich Graf zu Eulenburg und Hertefeld, greets us.

Haus Hertefeld has been in the family for almost 700 years and has been rebuilt many times, most recently after Nazi troops burned it down at the end of World War II. The estate has six guest rooms spread among the former guardhouse, the administrative building and the evocative tower and its historic cross vault, where one of the two suites is called the Czar’s Room for Alexander I of Russia, who stayed there — and left his samovar behind.

The Hertefelds were among the first noble families in the Lower Rhine area to join the Reformation in the 16th century, and the property served as a meeting place for the early Protestants.

Standing before the tower ruins in chinos and a red-and-white striped shirt with his wife and enchanting blond toddler, the count says, “In 1904, the Austrian emperor tried to convince my grandmother, who was 18, to become Catholic. After two hours in the garden with the emperor, she still refused, so he contacted the Vatican to let her marry in both faiths.”

The count’s neighbor, Raphael, Baron von Loe, describes more recent events at his picturesque 14th-century moated Schloss Wissen, where he has created 10 apartments.

“During World War II, the castle was used as a hospital,” he says. “When the German army wanted to commandeer it, my grandmother, who’s now 101, stood up to them and refused to let them take the red cross off the roof. They left, and because of her, the castle was never bombed.”

For centuries, this Lower Rhine region, which straddles the German-Dutch border, was fought over by emperors and dukes, Catholics and Protestants. The aristocracy left a profusion of stately homes and manor houses in the lovely pastoral region. Opening them to guests was the idea of historian and local resident Nicole Broegmann, who knew of at least 200 private castles in her home region alone; there are more than 6,000 in Germany.

“The younger generation, who saw the destruction of World War II, want to reconstruct tradition,” she says. “They want to bring history into the present.”

With a plan for funding and a roster of potential properties, Miss Broegmann started Culture & Castles. Municipalities would subsidize 20 percent to 50 percent of the cost of restoration; owners would commit for 10 years or repay the loan.

Now there are a dozen properties clustered on either side of the German-Dutch border, each with two to 10 guest rooms, and many more are under restoration across Germany.

The first, and perhaps most expensive, was Burg Boetzelaer by Baron and Baroness von Wendt, who were living in the coach house next to the medieval castle ruins in Kalkar, Germany.

“It was this double cross vault that drew us,” says the baroness, pointing to the stone ceiling in the dining hall of the five-year, $4.5 million project. Because the castle hosts public events and is handicapped accessible, it received 80 percent government funding.

Don’t mistake this castle-rich boomer generation for the idle aristocracy. The baroness is a teacher, her husband a landscape architect. The others also are professionals. What they have in common is a passion for preserving their heritage and an apparent delight in sharing it with visitors.

From any of the castles, guests can cycle along bike paths, follow riverside walking routes and go canoeing or kayaking.

Xanten, with a summer arts festival and a Roman Archaeological Park, is nearby. Moyland Castle has been restored as a museum with an important collection of works by the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys.

In fact, this German-Dutch border area is so rich in contemporary art museums that 10 of them are affiliated as Crossart Route-Moderne-Kunst — the Modern Art Route.

The best known of them is the Kroller-Muller near Otterlo, Netherlands, whose Vincent van Gogh collection and outdoor sculpture garden make it one of the world’s great museums.

Culture & Castles works closely with Crossart, making good on both parts of its name while providing its guests with a uniquely personal view of this historic region of the lower Rhine.

• • •

At most of the properties, double rooms start between $145 and $165, sometimes including breakfast.

Accommodations vary widely; some rooms are grand; most are more than comfortable; and all have private bathrooms.

For more information and bookings, contact Culture & Castles; call 49/0-28-24-952-000 or visit www.culture-castles.de. Or call the German National Tourist Office, 800/651-7010, send e-mail to [email protected] d-z-t.com, or visit www.cometogermany.com.

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